PRACTICE - STRATEGY - PHILOSOPHY - QUICK TIPS - AVOID THE BURNOUT - FUNZIES
By Matt Milkowski
Q: What’s the difference between a duck?
A: One of its legs is just the same.
This was my grandfather’s favorite joke. Don’t get it? I think that’s the point. This joke may not be busting bellies, but it does have one advantage over its chicken-crossing-the-road counterparts: originality. Originality is often cited as a core value of the art room, but are we confident we know what it is, and why it’s important? Let’s take a quick spin through this tricky concept and share a couple visuals along the way that will make it easier for students to understand, improve, and accept their artistic relationship with originality. Follow me!
What is originality?
I loosely define originality in the art room as the degree to which an idea, process, or approach is unique. In short, originality asks how different an artwork is from other people’s work. To demonstrate this notion with your students, consider the Family Feud approach: ask them to draw the first image that comes to mind when they hear the word “love." Typically, you will get an overwhelming number of hearts, demonstrating imagery that is not super original.
However, we know that assessing originality is not that simple. For example, how does a red symbolic heart compare to a teal one? What if the same heart is crumbling into pieces? Now imagine that it is expertly rendered as a human anatomical heart. Or what if the heart is collaged, made from the real red feathers of a sandhill crane, a species known for its long term monogamous relationships, glued onto your parents original hand-written wedding vows, soaked in tears from your last breakup, and ceremonially burned with a How to Find Love guide book? The point that I am belaboring here is that we mustn’t consider originality in binary yes/no terms, but rather on a spectrum.
Why must we be cautious when discussing originality?
Originality is connected to many other important art concepts, but teachers should be wary about equating it directly with creativity, artistic success, or higher level thinking. All three of these can be developed independently of originality. At the recent 2019 IAEA conference, Chris Sykora’s excellent presentation on creativity addressed this point, and debunked some myths about originality that many students (and adults) believe. Citing other creativity resources, such as the powerful Everything is a Remix video series, he reminded us that original ideas aren’t magic light bulbs that spontaneously appear above the heads of a select few “born” creatives. Originality stems from spending lots of time engaging in the creative process, and stretching the ideas of our predecessors.
Sykora also noted the tangled ideation theory, reinforcing that all of humankind’s ideas are connected to each other. Every single thought we have ever had individually, is by nature a recycled version of someone else’s. We can not invent that which we have never first observed, experienced, or known. Not that the world needs more dead white guy quotes, but Charles Baudelaire summed this one up neatly: “Nearly all our originality comes from the stamp that time impresses upon our sensibility.” Taking time to explain to our students that originality is a learnable skill (not a preordained gift) will help them buy into the process of progressing along the spectrum.
What is the role of originality in the classroom?
A secret wise teacher (Janet Taylor) from a mysterious distant land (Naperville, IL) once said, a teacher should root their curricular and instructional decisions in response to two key questions: What do I value? and What do I know? I think every teacher must think about these questions, as well as the goals of their course, department, and community when reflecting on the role of originality in their art class. All teachers value originality in their class on some level, from personal essays in English, to unique hypotheses in Science. However, we must reflect on the needs of our students, and consider the degree to which we emphasize originality in our curriculum and assessments.
Training our students to increase originality has loads of obvious upside. This includes fostering ownership, creative thinking, and having a more insightful understanding of visual culture. Originality is also a trait that can help students in all disciplines, so it has good lasting power for non-art majors. On the flip side, teaching students to be more original requires a lot of scaffolding and support, and can sometimes backfire, in which the high risk nature of generating original ideas or processes can result in a lack of confidence if not structured with care. Also, one could argue that while high-functioning originality is a universally helpful trait, it certainly isn’t required to succeed in a number of careers, including some art and design careers.
Where do I stand in my own classroom, you gingerly ask? I still wrestle with the right ratio of originality, and definitely have higher expectations for the advanced level courses that I teach. I also raise a concerned eyebrow towards teachers who bash or belittle student artists for lacking originality. What I know is that I want to help my students demystify originality in the classroom. I want to help them accurately identify where on the spectrum their own artwork lands without attaching broad-stroked judgment. An emerging artist shouldn’t be shamed for mimicking, as it is a natural and necessary part of artistic growth that all artists engage in. Mundane value scales, copying manga, and ripping off Pinterest ideas all lack substantive originality, but have immense value in other areas. No one expects musicians to jump into songwriting before learning a couple other songs, nor a chef to invent a new dish before mastering other recipes. I do, however, want them to become self aware of their originality footprint, and track their growth over time. You may now be asking yourself:
How can I help my students identify and track their degree of originality?
Over the years, I’ve noticed that I constantly repeat myself when providing student feedback regarding ways to increase originality. This year, I made 2 new resources that students and teachers can use to tighten up and pinpoint the various levels of originality we commonly see on the spectrum. Before we take a looksies, let’s take a disclaimer break:
Disclaimer 1: These spectrum resources do NOT address plagiarism or cultural appropriation, which are important and should be discussed separately.
Disclaimer 2: I am primarily a drawing and painting teacher. These resources target students that make artwork inspired by other visual imagery. Hopefully this applies to many other artistic disciplines, but alas, it may not.
Disclaimer 3: I haven’t used any of these yet in my own practice. I JUST made them, and am excited to roll them out, especially as my AP students begin their Sustained Investigations. However, I have not yet tested these formal spectrums, and have no evidence to support their effectiveness. Adventure Awaits!
OK, let’s dive in:
Resource 1: The Simple Originality Spectrum
This basic spectrum provides a numeric originality value of 1-7 with light subjective descriptors. It is bookended by general terms that separate less original content from more original content. Of course the numbers can be modified to any quantity, but students can use this quick tool to evaluate the level of originality of a given piece. This could be presented as part of a rubric, as a resource for consideration throughout the year, or even projected or posted during critiques. I encourage you to tinker with the numbers, descriptors, and format to find a fit that’s best for your students.
Resource 2: Targeted Originality SpectruM
This spectrum is also used as a diagnostic tool. However, it focuses on targeted questions and processes that students must consider holistically if they aim to improve originality. Here, I move away from a numeric scale, and instead sink into more descriptive criteria. I split the spectrum into 3 connected, but separate questions:
How can I use the originality spectrums?
Depending on your needs, you may prefer one spectrum over the other, or use both for different reasons. Even better, make your own unique version. Regardless of the format, here are some activities and applications of the spectrum(s) to consider:
So many other fine arts courses are praised for evidence of technique, yet they are not often expected to demonstrate originality. Band and chorus perform songs written by others. Drama performs plays written by others. Culinary cooks recipes made by others. Only in the visual arts are students frequently expected to master technique and high degrees of originality. While we know that this is what makes our rooms so special, we must also give ourselves and our students a break for taking on this difficult challenge. By removing punitive judgement, busting light bulb mythology, and helping students track their growth with spectrums, the originality challenge can become a little easier to tackle. And you know what they always say: you can’t spell “trying aioli” without “originality!”